The Exploitation of Illegal Workers in the United States: The Horrors of Unbridled Price Competition

The United States has a Jekyll-and-Hyde attitude towards, and relationship with, its many illegal migrant workers. Most of these workers come from poor countries in Latin America, where wages are lower and jobs are difficult to find, and so they are willing to work for less than the typical American worker. They come from economically depressed regions in the hope of finding work to better their situation and help their families back home. Estimates of their numbers vary, but what is clear is that their labour is necessary to keep many American businesses operating at full capacity. But though these workers are necessary to keep the American economy running efficiently, they are often reviled in the media and the court of public opinion because it is believed that they take jobs away from more deserving American citizens.

Most migrations take place within countries, from rural areas to towns. The second greatest movement is across borders to neighboring countries. Only a small minority cross continents, yet these disturb the people in the rich countries disproportionately. Agitations against migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees in rich countries usually focus on claims that they are criminals or scroungers, taking away our jobs and diluting our culture. The truth is that they work for below-subsistence wages and provide a pool of labor to service wealth and protect it against wage inflation.

Migrants contribute to the economy of the host country at enormous costs to themselves and their families. The UK Home Office estimates the net contribution of economic migrants to the British economy at $5 billion.[1]

What is generally not recognized about this group of illegal workers is that their situation illustrates two aspects of capitalism: first, it illustrates what working conditions were like in industrial countries like Great Britain before laws and programs such as minimum wage, unemployment insurance, paid holidays, mandatory workers’ compensation for injured workers, and maximum working hours were enacted to protect them from greedy and unscrupulous owners; and second, it illustrates what a system of laissez-faire capitalism looks like. The many free-market fanatics who oppose minimum wages and other measures that are intended to protect workers in the United States and elsewhere should be made to work in the deplorable conditions in which illegal workers are often forced to work because of unbridled price competition and the absence of legal protections.

At first, we thought we could go to the CEOs of big food companies and convince them to pay better prices to [coffee] producers. It was pretty naïve, but we had hope. The CEOs said, ‘Oh no, we can’t pay more to the producers; we operate in the free market. What if we pay a higher price and other companies don’t?’[2]

In many cases, the prices that are paid for the products they help to produce are so low that, first of all, the owners do not earn enough money to pay their workers a decent wage for the often difficult, dirty, and dangerous work which they perform; second, the working conditions, including housing for migrant workers, are often deplorable because there is not enough money to improve them; and third, when the workers are injured or suffer other work-related health problems, there is not enough money to pay them adequate benefits or compensation. Furthermore, because of their illegal status, they have absolutely no recourse to the legal system in order to seek redress or prevent the abuses that they may incur while performing their jobs. Thus, these illegal workers, who perform jobs which most Americans do not want to perform because they are dangerous, dirty, and physically difficult, but which are essential to the smooth operation of the American capitalist machine, have been reduced to a servile condition that, in many ways, is a form of economic slavery. They form the ideal labour force in the laissez-faire economist’s vision of an economic utopia, where the operations of the free market are unimpeded and uncorrected by government regulations, programs, and punishments.

The use of illegal aliens – workers who have no legal status and therefore no legal protections in the country where they work – provides an example of what would happen in a system of true laissez-faire capitalism, where the workers are not protected by legal statutes and programs such as a minimum wage, paid holidays, maximum working hours, mandatory overtime pay, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation for injuries suffered while working, and are subjected instead to the cold and brutal logic of the free market, which dictates that all things be produced as cheaply as possible, and that maximizing profit at the expense of everything else is the only important goal in life.

[1] The No-Nonsense Guide to World Poverty by Jeremy Seabrook, p. 108. Between the Lines, Toronto, 2007.

[2] Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet For a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, p. 199. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 2002.